SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. This past January marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. When we learn about the Holocaust, we often spend a lot of time trying to understand the psychological distance that perpetrators created between themselves and their victims. We're taught that to kill in that manner, the Nazis and their allies had to see their victims as anonymous.
But Watson fellow and historian Omer Bartov explores a different side of this tragedy in his recent book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. As he writes, many killings were far from anonymous.
OMER BARTOV: Jews served as babysitters, as cooks, as tailors, as doctors. By the time the killing begins, these people know each other. There is nothing secret about it because it's public. The killing is public. But it's also very intimate. People know each other by name before they start the killing. So this notion of a detached kind of killing doesn't exist.
SARAH BALDWIN: In the book, Omer paints a picture of Buczacz, Ukraine, a multi-ethnic town that, before World War II, had roughly 10,000 Jewish citizens. Over the course of a few years, thousands of them were murdered Omer's interest in Buczacz goes beyond its historical example. Buczacz was also the town where his mother grew up.
On this episode, I talked with Omer about how the residents of one small town went in a matter of years from peacefully coexisting to committing mass murder. It's an important piece of history and an essential part of the story of the Holocaust. It's also a universal story about how quickly neighbors can turn against each other. This wasn't an easy conversation, but it's an important one.
So Omer Bartov, thank you so much for coming in and talking to Trending Globally.
OMER BARTOV: Thank you.
SARAH BALDWIN: I want to start with your most recent book, Anatomy of a Genocide. I find the title, first of all, incredibly apt because what you do is you take this town, and you dissect its dynamics and its history, this one eastern European border town in which Jews and Poles and Ukrainians have lived ostensibly peacefully for centuries.
And then in World War II during the Holocaust, the outcome is quite devastating and not peaceful at all. What does this one town and what happened in the '40s tell us about the Holocaust that we don't already know?
OMER BARTOV: So my question to myself when I started this a long time ago, about 20 years ago, was, what was the nature of the encounter between the perpetrators and the victims in the Holocaust, and in genocide in general? And in the Holocaust, we have this picture of a detachment between the perpetrators and the victims, that the victims were dehumanized and the system of killing was compartmentalized in a way that did not make for this kind of contact.
And that made it possible for that to happen because it was said that otherwise, it was very difficult for the killers to keep on doing the killing, that it had psychological impact on them. When I started researching this, it was in the nineteen-nineties, and that was just when the genocides in Bosnia and in Rwanda happened. These were genocides in which neighbors killed neighbors. They were very intimate genocides and very brutal.
And so I asked myself, did this happen also in the Holocaust, and how do you investigate that? How do you go around this very predominant thesis at the time that the killing was mechanical, that it was a kind of industrial killing? And so I thought the best way to do that would be to choose one town and to see what happened in one town. And the town I chose was a town in Eastern Europe because that was where most of the Jews lived and where most of the Jews were murdered.
SARAH BALDWIN: Can you tell us about how you chose that town?
OMER BARTOV: So I chose that town specifically for a number of reasons. First of all, I knew about this town because a very well-known author came from that town and I had studied this author when I was in high school, growing up in Israel. His name is Yosef Shmuel Agnon, Shai Agnon. He's the only Nobel Prize laureate in literature who wrote in Hebrew.
So these were important public figures that I knew about, but I also chose it because my mother came from there. And she lived there until she was 11. She left with her parents' two brothers in Nineteen-Thirty-Five. The rest of my family stayed there, and they were all murdered. And although now I know a great deal about what happened there during the war, I don't know specifically how my own family members were murdered. I know what the options were.
So I chose it for all those reasons, but also because it was representative of hundreds of towns that existed throughout Eastern Europe, all the way from the Baltic to the Balkans to the Black Sea, which were all towns with mixed populations.
And the reason was that there were towns and empires until Nineteen-Fourteen that themselves were multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires. And all these towns were on the borderlands between the different empires-- the Russian, the German, the Austrian, and if you go further down, the Ottoman Empire.
SARAH BALDWIN: I find the story of this town and the people in this town fascinating. There's this sort of triangle of enemies. One category of people sees the other two as enemies. And that's true for each. Could you talk a little bit about that dynamic, and then how that led to this breakdown of social norms, in a way?
OMER BARTOV: So what I would say, because this is a long and complicated story, I would say that until Nineteen-Fourteen, for about 400 years, for most of that period in that town and in that region, Poles, Ukrainians, who were usually referred to as [INAUDIBLE], and Jews had lived side by side.
But what happens in the late 19th century is the beginning of nationalism in that area. And Polish and Ukrainian nationalisms are territorial and ethnic nationalisms. And Poles and Ukrainians in that area in particular are arguing each that that area belongs to them. And so they are competing with each other over that area.
And the one thing that they agreed on, which was the single point of agreement, was that the Jews didn't belong to their future nation states, those that they wanted to create. So the Poles wanted a nation state where Ukrainians would really be transformed into Poles. The Ukrainians wanted a nation state where there would be neither Poles nor Jews.
In Nineteen-Fourteen, this increasingly violent rhetoric is transformed into violence. The war there is very brutal. That area, including Buczacz, is occupied by the Russians twice in Nineteen-Fourteen, '15, and then again in Nineteen-Sixteen, '17.
There is a great deal of violence particularly against Jews by the Russian army, especially by [INAUDIBLE] units not only, but certainly by [INAUDIBLE] units [INAUDIBLE]. So that kind of violence against a minority is seen by the rest of the population. And it is seen as those licensed to do it.
That, combined with the violence between Poles and Ukrainians in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Nineteen-Eighteen, '19, means that by the time the new Polish state is established there, there is a legacy of violence and resentment by each group against the other. All of these elements mean that by Nineteen-Thirty-Nine, each group feels that it had already been victimized by the other.
In Nineteen-Thirty-Nine, Buczacz and all of eastern Poland is not occupied by the Germans, but by the Soviets because that's part of the agreement between Hitler and Stalin that actually facilitates Hitler's attack on Poland.
They do two things that the Soviets were very good at. One is they destroy the local economy, which was pretty weak even before they came, because they nationalized it. They nationalized it badly so there is a great shortage of food. And secondly, they start going after their political and social enemies as they defined them.
And that means that they begin by deporting large numbers of Poles, the Polish elites, officer families, political activists, the aristocracy. Then they start deporting the Jews, either as social enemies of their factories or stores and as political enemies, especially of the zionists.
And then they start deporting Ukrainians. And by summer of Nineteen-Fourty-One, there are several thousand Ukrainian political activists in local jails in Buczacz and in many other places in larger towns, such as [INAUDIBLE] or [INAUDIBLE], the capital of that region.
And so when the Germans attack, the Soviets kill large numbers of political prisoners in the jails before they retreat. So by the time the Germans arrive and the Germans attack on the 22nd of June Nineteen-Fourty-One, they reached this area in early July. There had already been a great deal of blood spilt already.
Now the Germans, their goal in that area, once the army moves through and continues into the depths of the Soviet Union and doesn't come back until Nineteen-Fourty-Four, the main goal of the German rulers there is to kill the Jewish population.
And they establish security police units, a Gestapo, criminal police, SS, and so forth. And those 20 men, between late summer Nineteen-Fourty-Two and early summer Nineteen-Fourty-Three, kill about 60,000 Jews in this area. They deport about half of them to an extermination camp in Buczacz, which is on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
And the rest they kill in situ. They kill right there in the towns. In Buczacz itself, it means that there were about 8,000 Jews living there at the outbreak of the war. The Germans kill about 10,000 Jews there, because they bring Jews also from surrounding villages. From smaller towns, they concentrate there first. More than half of them are killed in situ. The deportations are only in the latter months of Nineteen-Fourty-Two.
So the killings are very public. They're very brutal. And about 7,000 people are killed on those two hills within about six months.
What is important to me here is that the Germans, when they come in, they don't begin the killings right away. There is only one killing of the intelligentsia, as they call, the sort of elite, of about 450 Jews. But after that, there is no killing for about a year.
SARAH BALDWIN: Why?
OMER BARTOV: Why is not entirely clear. It's probably because they're waiting for the establishment first of an extermination camp. And then there is a set of priorities as to who is taken when to that camp. Because it has limited facilities because of train schedules. But it surely comes. In October Nineteen-Fourty-Two, the deportations from Buczacz begin.
But between September '41 and October '42, there are close relations between Jews and Germans. Jews serve there as babysitters, as cooks, as tailors, as doctors, as dentists. So this close relationship of Jews coming in and out of German homes for an entire year means that by the time the killing begins, these people know each other.
There is nothing secret about it because it's public. The killing is public. But it's also very intimate. People know each other by name before they start the killing. So this notion of a detached kind of killing doesn't exist.
And of course, I should add that, of course, these 20 Germans cannot, on their own, organize the killing of 60,000 Jews. And so in order to do that, they use Ukrainian militias that had been created to express Ukrainian nationalism in Nineteen-Fourty-One and transformed them into auxiliary police units, which are serving the Germans. And those units are those that go to towns, raids towns, surround them, collect the Jews, bring them to the killing sites, and then the Jews are killed there by these few Germans.
SARAH BALDWIN: It took you 20 years to research and write this book. Can you tell us about your process and where your research took you, and then sort of bring us to Buczacz today?
OMER BARTOV: So basically, it took me to about nine countries and nine languages over 50 archives. I collected personal information because much of what I did had to do with my idea that you had to have the voice of the people. So I wanted as much personal testimony as I could.
So I had about 250 individual accounts by Jews, about 50 by Poles, about 25 by Ukrainians, and quite a large number of Germans who were there and who were tried after the war, not only perpetrators, but family members, other policemen, administrators.
SARAH BALDWIN: What surprised you the most?
OMER BARTOV: I think what is obviously most disturbing and most shocking is when you see not only how people had lived together, who had close relations, who could have lived in the same building, whose children went to school together, who were colleagues at work, who met every day on the market place, and who had done that for generations, how quickly things can turn from a few resentments and disagreements and prejudices into extraordinary killing and the most brutal kind of killing.
The other thing I would say was almost the opposite. And that was that we haven't an idea of genocide, that in genocide, there is a kind of logic to it. That once it begins, people have no choice, or they have what was once called choiceless choices.
And that was not the case there. You find that at every moment, at every turn, people made a choice. And the choices people made were often surprising. They often did not conform to what they were doing most of the time. So for me, what I found most extraordinary was what I call the kind of ambivalence of good. Because evil is easier to identify.
But what is good? There were people who were sheltering Jews, helping them, and then denounced them. There were people who were killing Jews, whose job was to kill Jews, who saved a few Jews. The logic of actions-- there were people who were hiding Jews at one point, and at another point, said they won't do it anymore. The logic of these actions defies anything that we would like to think about categorizing people.
And so this for me was especially interesting. And the last thing I would say that was really important, because it's so much part of the literature on the Holocaust, and that is it had an effect on the literature on genocide in general and comparative genocide.
We like to talk about three categories of people, right, about perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. And what I realized was that in any such town as Buczacz and thousands like it, and possibly in our own neighborhoods, if violence occurs, there are no bystanders.
SARAH BALDWIN: There's no such thing as bystanders.
OMER BARTOV: And that for me was a very important revelation, that everyone has degrees of involvement. And they can range and they can change, but nobody's just standing by.
SARAH BALDWIN: Does what you put forth in this book have any lessons for us today?
OMER BARTOV: On the one hand, years ago, I wrote a sort of little chapter in a book, which I called "The Lessons of the Holocaust," and I argued that I was very much against it. I thought that the whole idea that you learn more lessons from an atrocity is itself atrocious.
So, in a sense, drawing more lessons from something like this, I find is problematic. But when you look at what happens in one town, in one neighborhood, and when you take it out of this particular context of the Holocaust, was the Holocaust unique or not unique? How do you compare it to other genocides?
And you look just at what happens in one place. Then you realize this has happened in many places many times. What happens in Buczacz is not very different from what happened in towns in Bosnia or in villages in Rwanda.
And what you realize is I think-- at least, this was my sense, and mostly in the last two, three years-- is how fragile our own society is and how quickly the kind of resentments that we feel, the kind of jealousy, the kind of prejudices we have, which are usually not triggered. We say hello to our neighbors every morning when we go to work. We say hello when we come back. We wave at them. And we trust this to continue.
How quickly this crust can break, and when it does, then everything that you see in a town like this could happen in your own neighborhood. And that felt, to me, very close. And maybe something that we can apply to events that are happening around our own world right now.
SARAH BALDWIN: Can you tell us what Buczacz looks like today?
OMER BARTOV: So you know I went there for the first time in Two Thousand and Three. I had actually-- I was interviewing my mother about this town when I started writing the book about her childhood memories of it in Nineteen-Ninety-Five, and we talked about maybe we'll go together. Because she had not been there since Nineteen-Thirty-Five.
But then she became ill, and she passed away. And so the first time I went was on my own. And it was very depressing. Buczacz is not Vilnius, as it looks now. This area is quite poor. So it was especially then quite neglected, like many other towns in that area in what is now Western Ukraine. It was the mud period, so the things freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw.
And there was nothing left, no memory of what there had been. The killing sites are unmarked. In Vilnius, they are marked. In Buczacz and in other places, they're not marked. So the mass graves, you just have to go look for them. The cemetery was abandoned and was serving, really, as a garbage dump. The one house that remained of Jewish religious life there had just been demolished to build the shopping center.
And people were grumpy, unhappy to see foreigners, and had no interest in talking about any of this. And a few years ago, a bust was put up of Agnon, where presumably he lived. It's probably the wrong place. But there is a bust that commemorates him as a Ukrainian writer who received the Nobel Prize in literature. It's an important piece of east European Jewish history. And many of these towns are related to all kinds of known people in Jewish history.
And they were all neglected. The kids were herding goats in cemeteries. And there was no recollection of anything. And it is very depressing. It did make me think a little bit about my own childhood growing up.
I remembered myself playing in neighborhoods or where I was growing up, which was in Tel Aviv, in central Tel Aviv and then later in northern Tel Aviv, where the University of Tel Aviv is now, which I allowed to attend and where I taught for a while. In both those places, there had been villages. There had been Palestinian villages there. And we used to play in them.
There were sort of ruined houses, shells of houses, cemeteries. And we as kids played in them. And I, at some point, because I kept asking myself, what do these Ukrainian kids think when they're playing in cemeteries with writing that they cannot read or in shelled out synagogues that look like houses from Macondo or from One Hundred Years of Solitude, with a jungle growing in the middle of the synagogue. What do they think about it?
And it suddenly occurred to me that I had gone through something like that process, too. I had done that growing up. And in the back of my mind, as I think at the back of the minds of those kids, there was some awareness, something that there had been another culture, another civilization. There had been people there. But it was never articulated because the surrounding society did not articulate it. Or because people were poor, and people were too busy just making a living.
And so that relationship to a past that has been erased was, in some ways, something that was always in the back of my mind. And when I wrote this book, in some ways, I wanted to repopulate this place. I wanted to do, in my words, an historian, what Agnon did when he was writing his last book, which he never finished, then he would never have finished. He wrote it until he died, which was a kind of biography of his town of Buczacz.
But he populated it only as a Jewish town, because that's how he remembered it. And I wanted to repopulate it a town that was not only this wretched little Ukrainian town that it is now, but a town in which Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles had lived together and had a good life. Maybe it was not that prosperous. It was not-- but it was a place where they lived, where they had a culture. And to bring that back, not only to tell how they killed each other, but also before, how they had lived together.
SARAH BALDWIN: Omer Bartov, thank you so much for it. That's completely haunting and beautiful. Thank you so much for coming in today and talking to us about your work.
OMER BARTOV: Thank you very much.
SARAH BALDWIN: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by Dan Richards and Babette Thomas. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.
If you like what you hear, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find this show. For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening, and tune in, in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.